WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy careened through underground catacombs connecting the Capitol complex Thursday, bumping into pockets of other wide-eyed freshmen lawmakers and seasoned members.
He snagged his congressional pin and voting card, prepped for his swearing in an hour later and awaited a swarm of Murphy kin heading to his office.
Murphy's Communications Director Erin Moffet, a bit more tenured in the halls of Washington, caught a rookie mistake.
"Patrick, your shoe is untied," said Moffet, formerly with U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings' office. Murphy shrugged it off, still grinning. "Don't get it caught in the escalator," she sighed. He finally obliged.
Murphy, who became the youngest member of Congress at 29 years old Thursday, has chipped away at the normal freshman learning curve and chores — figuring out his way around, setting up the office, picking up paperwork, even taking one significant vote for Hurricane Sandy relief money.
After a nationally prominent election tussle with Allen West , however, fellow Democrats want to help Murphy shine among the class of 84 newbies.
"Patrick is a guy who is going to spark some new life," said freshman U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach. "He's got good values, he's going to be willing to work across the aisle and compromise, and I think that's what the public wants now."
Opponents haven't formally lined up yet, but Republicans are watching closely to see how well Murphy lives up to that bipartisan billing in a divided House. In District 18, where Republicans outnumber Democrats by 2 percentage points, the Jupiter Democrat already is fundraising for anticipated 2014 opposition.
But the same big Democratic congressional names that vouched for him during the campaign — House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, House Budget Committee Ranking Member Chris Van Hollen and more — are now helping Murphy on the Hill. Vice President Joe Biden even showed up for Murphy's swearing-in party.
"Beating West definitely helped put me on the radar screen for a lot of people," said Murphy, an accountant and businessman. "But I think, beyond that, my age, hopefully eagerness to learn, perhaps not as stubborn as some members, (Democratic leaders) appreciate that."
Hoyer, a Maryland lawmaker, guided Murphy through the committee selection process. The result — Murphy landed a spot on the Committee on Financial Services, his top choice.
"Those are very sought-after spots, so it's a testament to the fact that Patrick is already held in good standing," said Van Hollen, D-Md.
The committee deals in securities, housing, insurance and banking issues — all big issues for Martin, St. Lucie and northern Palm Beach counties in his district. They also provide lucrative fundraising opportunities, a perk because Murphy may not be able to rely as much on anti-West money next election. West, R-Palm Beach Gardens, hasn't publicized his political plans.
Just after Christmas — days before West left office — Murphy still used West as a fundraising backboard over his stance against the fiscal cliff deal. His bout with West brought in more than $30 million among candidates and outside groups, the most in any House race.
"By giving to Patrick's campaign today, we can send a strong message to Allen West that his juvenile behaviors aren't what we want in Washington," the campaign said in a December fundraising email.
Murphy said he's also working to win supporters who specifically just wanted to see West lose.
"Being on a committee, being in certain designated positions in Congress, there are groups that want to support you as well," Murphy said. "I don't know if it counters (not facing West), but it's definitely another mitigating factor."
U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, a Tequesta Republican who left the Treasure Coast to clinch a central Florida district, supported West when he decided to run in District 18. Both West and Murphy moved to run on the Treasure Coast. At the Capitol last week, Rooney met Murphy's family, and commended him for his reaction to the fiscal cliff deal.
Murphy expressed frustration that the closed-door deal didn't address the debt limit and spending cuts. The two lawmakers already are planning to introduce a bill, possibly on Everglades restoration.
"For a freshman, I've been impressed with his ability to sort of say what he really believes, versus what Pelosi wants him to say," Rooney said.
Murphy had President Bill Clinton, former Gov. Charlie Crist, former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and more politicos on his campaign's side. Rooney, who comes from another politically connected big Irish family, said those connections can only take Murphy so far.
Murphy's family runs Coastal Construction Group in Miami, which has divvied up campaign contributions between Democrats and Republicans. Rooney's family owns the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Palm Beach Kennel Club and several bars.
"It's nice to have those guys (Clinton and Biden) at your parties, and you